Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
- Western countries are hustling to deliver main battle tanks to Ukraine’s military.
- Tanks will be useful in taking on Russian tanks and fortifications in a counterattack this spring.
- But Ukraine needs other armored vehicles to counterattack Russia effectively, one expert says.
Western nations — and Western media — have focused on meeting Ukraine’s pleas for more tanks, but what Ukraine really needs is armored vehicles to carry infantry into battle, one expert argues.
Without those vehicles, Ukraine’s large infantry force will lack the mobility to conduct a counteroffensive, according to Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses think tank.
During a trip to Ukraine, including to Bakhmut, in early March, Kofman came away thinking, “Dear God, that is a lot of infantry battalions, not a lot of mobility,” he said during a March 9 episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast.
Ukraine is forming three new corps-size units to consolidate numerous brigades into larger formations in preparation for an armored counteroffensive. An army corps can have up to about 45,000 troops depending on the military, though if Ukraine continues to use Russian-style organization, its corps will probably be closer to 20,000 troops.
Destroyed armored personnel carriers and in a field in Bucha in April 2022.
Alexey Furman/Getty Images
The problem is that Ukraine’s corps lack heavily armed and armored infantry fighting vehicles — such as the US-made M-2 Bradley, Germany’s Marder, or the Soviet-designed BMP — to equip mechanized infantry units sufficiently. Nor do the corps have enough trucks of the kind that carried motorized infantry into battle in World War II.
“There is a lot of mechanized infantry and tank brigades in each” corps that Ukraine is forming, Kofman said. “Some of them feature seven infantry battalions per brigade. There is no mechanization for them. There isn’t actually a lot in the way of military motorization for them, either.”
In the early days of the war, when Ukraine was on the defensive or fighting in rough terrain or urban environments like Bakhmut, infantry on foot — especially if well-armed with anti-tank weapons — were quite formidable.
“It can hold defense all day long,” Kofman said of those infantry-heavy units. “A seven-battalion infantry brigade can hold Bakhmut, don’t get me wrong, but if you want that military to go a major offensive on the south, it needs to be driving in something.”
Ukrainian soldiers change the tires on an armored personal carrier in Bakhmut in October.
Jan Husar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Armored troop carriers aren’t the only thing Ukraine needs for a successful counteroffensive.
Ukrainian forces lack breaching equipment to penetrate and clear the numerous trench lines and minefields that Russia has constructed, especially in southern Ukraine, which is a prime target for a Ukrainian counterattack to cut off and recapture the Crimean peninsula.
Kofman pointed to a disastrous Russian attack near the town of Vuhledar in the Donetsk region, as well as Russian defenses around the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia.
“You see how much the Russian military struggles at Vuhledar, driving into the same minefield every morning, right?” Kofman said during a March 14 War on the Rocks podcast. “Well, if Ukrainian forces have to conduct a major assault against Russian positions, they’re going to be running into minefields too. They’re going to need breaching equipment. They’re going to need combat engineering equipment.”
Ukraine may also lack sufficient river-crossing equipment. Without the ability to build bridges strong enough to bear the weight of armored vehicles, a Ukrainian offensive would stall. Kofman said that problem may have held up the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive at Kharkiv last autumn.
A destroyed bridge across the Siverskiy-Donets River in Ukraine’s Donbas region on in February.
John Moore/Getty Images
“Why were Ukrainian forces not able to effectively capitalize on the momentum they had when Russian forces were routed and in disarray?” Kofman said. “One explanation could be a lack of bridging equipment, that they only had one pontoon bridge across the river at a key point for over a week.”
Kofman and other observers are highlighting the challenge of building a well-balanced force, which has long vexed armies.
For Ukrainian troops to break the trench deadlock and eject Russian forces from their fortifications, they will need the ingredients of a proper mechanized, combined-arms offensive: tanks, infantry in armored vehicles that can keep up with the tanks, self-propelled artillery, combat engineers and bridging equipment, supply trucks, and so on.
But Ukraine now has limited supply over its arsenal — it is juggling a hodgepodge of Western-made equipment and is dependent on Western nations for spare parts and critical supplies, including ammunition.
If and when it launches that long-anticipated counteroffensive, Ukraine will do so with the army that it has rather than the one it needs.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.